So last week, I shared some ideas on how to manage your time as a creative, or even as any working professional. These were more principle based – high level concepts to consider, ideas like making the time, managing energy, and using time blocks.
This week, I’ll go a little deeper and share some more, granular tips on how you could manage your time better or squeeze productivity out of the hours you already have.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Respect the Pareto Principle
The Pareto Principles states that generally speaking, 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. So, for instance, 80% of our income probably comes from 20% of our activities or clients. In lieu of this, we have to take stock of our activities and efforts and figure out which ones actually bring in results and learn how to maximise those.
This is very similar to the idea of the ‘One Thing‘ from Gary Keller. Amongst all the different things we have to do, there is probably one thing in the mix. The one thing we could do that would make everything else easier or irrelevant. The one thing that would move things forward the most. The one thing that would have the most impact.
We all have many things we have to do in a day, from the important and the urgent to the little niggling admin details of our lives. The more we can focus on and put our best energies on the most effectual tasks of our day, the more success we will encounter.
Reclaim lost time
So if you really wanted to be that guy and squeeze more out of the hours of your day, you could consider making some of the things you do dual purpose at least. The easiest spaces to do this are with things like travelling, cleaning, laundry, relaxing – activities that keep your hands busy while your mind has the space to wander.
That could be the time to get some calls in, or listen to a podcast or ebook, or follow a course.
Or if you are working on a big project and have chunked it down to its component parts and tasks, you could fit some of those smaller pieces into little pockets of time that you find empty like waiting at the Doctor’s office, or in between meetings.
Make your down time productive
An idea I learned recently from Captain Sinbad was this concept of making your down time productive. And you do this by connecting the thing you do for fun or to relax to what you do productively.
As a YouTuber, he is interested in film, and everything that goes into the process of making movies. So on his down time, he likes to watch specific movies from directors he admires. While he is enjoying some time relaxing, he is also watching out for tips, dissecting cinematic styles, and learning as he is watching.
As an entrepreneur you could favour movies or fiction books about business people or great people of history as a way to inspire yourself while chilling. Or you could watch documentaries for fun. That is a great way to relax and learn something new.
Beware Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s law states that tasks will swell up to fill the time allocated to it.
If you have 3 months to write an essay, it will probably take you all that time to write the essay. Unless you are truly disciplined and able to manage your efforts properly, you would probably procrastinate to the last moment and then get it all done in an all nighter session the day before it is due.
One way to combat this human tendency is to set artificial deadlines and limit the amount of time you have to do certain things. The shorter the time, the more you are forced to strip the task down to its core most important bits. You have no time to dabble and dwaddle or try to noodle and make things perfect and just so. With limited time, you just have to focus on getting things done.
Make it fun
This is another tip from Ali Abdaal. He maintains that the key to productivity lies in learning to enjoy what we have to do, or find ways to make it more interesting. That could be from inviting people to work with you or join efforts, to discovering ways to gamify the experience.
It could be as simple as pairing your work with the right music, so you are jamming along with your favourite tunes as you create. Or watching items on your todo list get scratched out as you knock out task after task.
You could also do this by building out your environment to be an awesome inspiring space that encourages you to do good work. Making it fun to be in your productive space.
All these little tricks and hacks can help us become more productive, more effective in the time we do spend working, and allow us the space to fit more of life and build a more fulfilling existence.
Looking over the past few weeks, a theme is emerging in regards to what I have been thinking and writing about. That theme seems to be around the subject of creativity – from reconnecting with passion, to reclaiming creativity for ourselves, to the different levels of creative thought we engage in.
I have been thinking about a lot about creativity because well, I am a creative, and it plays a big role in my career and in my personal projects and aspirations. Also since I’ve started to put out content on a regular basis again, I have been reflecting on the nature of creativity and creative production. Today I am focusing on time.
Time management is absolutely important. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, and the same 7 days in the week. Some people are able to fit in a crazy amount of work and productivity in that time, while some of us squander most of our time or at the least we don’t direct its use properly.
If we want to be successful and creatively fulfilled, we have to do the work. And there is a lot of work – researching, discovering, prototyping, producing, pitching. Doubly so if we are building a stack and have a lot of things going on.
How do we manage our time in a way that squeezes the most of the moments we spend on the grind? How do it do it in such a way that preserves our time for rest, our empty space?
The answers will vary from person to person, but here are some principles to think about.
Reject the ‘I don’t have time’ myth
I have a whole blog post on this, and shout out to Ali Abdaal’s productivity course for hammering this idea even further home for me.
The usual knee-jerk reaction or reason as to why we are not getting stuff done is the idea that we don’t have time. We reach for that excuse and mentally conjure up a fog of activities, meetings, and commitments that are preventing us from doing what we need to get done.
More often that not, it is really just that, an excuse. All we have is time, the real reason is that we are not using it properly. Sure, you might really have so many commitments and pressures on your time that it is hard to find time. But you have more control than you think you do.
You have to shift to the mentality of making time. You know what needs to get done. Make the time for it. Do an audit of your time. Discover all time you waste and redesign your schedule. Prioritise what is important. Say no to something else. Steal time somewhere. Wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Delegate stuff to someone else. Run away from the world for a bit. Do whatever you need to do to make the time.
Protect the downtime
We are not fine-tuning our productivity and managing our time better so we can spend all our time working. Quite the contrary, we are trying to make sure we get things done while still being able to enjoy our downtime, our play, our leisure guilt free.
You need the cycles of productivity and rest to work at peak levels over the long term. If your work swells up to swallow up every second of your time, leaving you no time for yourself, no time for rest, for play, for contemplation, then you are probably doing too much, and not managing your time and energy well enough. Speaking of energy…
A lot of time management is energy management.
It doesn’t matter if you are an early riser or a night owl. What matters is understanding your energy patterns, your circadian rhythms and as much as possible aligning to that. Work when your energy is up and rest when your energy is low. Do the most important and focus requiring tasks first and out the way, then do rote things when you are a bit tired and fatigued. It is that simple.
Most people are freshest after waking up, do your most important work (the actual creative work that will move you forward) within the first 2-5 hours of your day, then schedule the more routine stuff like checking email, processing admin, having meetings to later in the day.
You can also batch similar tasks together and optimise your processes for greater efficiency. But direct your best energy to the most important things.
Build your life around the core important things
In The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey likens our schedules to a jar, and our priorities as rocks and sand of different grades. If you put the sand first, then the rocks on top, you would not be able to fit in as much as if you had put the rocks in first then poured the sand in. It is a great analogy to the idea of scheduling your most important things first, and everything else around that.
What is truly important to you? What will actually move you forward? It is probably your work, the quality of your creation, the quality of your study, of your networking, of your habits and day to day. Make sure these things are scheduled into your life on a weekly basis. A block of time – an hour, or two, or six, whatever you can manage. This keeps you on track and makes sure that those important things are actually getting done.
Find a way to chunk and bake the steps to your goals and projects into your daily routine.
Block the time, protect the work
In our attention-deficit world, the ability to focus and get things done is more prized and more important than ever. So, put the phone away, shut off the internet if you can, close the door, let people know to leave you alone for a while, and then just get things done.
It might be difficult at first if you are not used to it. The desire to check the feed, to distract yourself is powerful. But substitute that with the eventual pull that is the flow state. As you learn to settle into your work and focus on it, you will learn to enjoy it more. You will find yourself creating, exploring, learning, until you are sucked in so far, it legit takes a lot to pull you out and distract you.
Those are 5 quick principles and ideas to help supercharge your productivity. In the next blog, I will explore at least 5 more more granular tips and tricks to help you manage your time more effectively.
I came across this podcast, ‘Make Art Not Content‘ a couple weeks back, and it’s pretty great. The channel sports these short but dynamic and pithy clips that are hard hitting, provocative and fun. There was an episode that stuck with me so much, I knew I was going to eventually going to write about it. It was titled The 6 Modes of Creative Thinking.
As humans, and especially as creatives, the level of our creative output is tied to the level and quality of thought and insight that we have. The movies, music, art, and products that we revere the most are the ones that are inspired, that resonate, delight and surprise, that provoke. You can only access this level and quality of output or creation yourself if you are operating on the higher spectrum of creative thought.
In it, Father Bronques (I assume that is his name) talks about the 6 levels of creative thought, and I think they form a useful framework to determine and consider the level of creativity and focus we are operating at.
The first level is….
If you can even call it thinking. It is more akin to being dragged away by the runaway train that is your mind. In this stage, there is so much brain power being used but it is destructive, working against you.
I know this level of thinking very much, I know that my mind is prone to anxiety, prone to creating the worst case scenarios. It take conscious effort to reject and redirect my thoughts to more creative and optimistic places.
With the turmoil and chaos that overthinking brings, it is clear that no great art is ever made in this mode. You are just stuck jumping from thought to thought without doing anything real. This is negative imagination.
But you don’t have to be stuck here. You have to do the work though to get out. To find your oasis, a port in the storm. To quieten the mind. To put things in perspective. To do the practice. To take care of yourself. To heal. To move forward.
So you can pull past the negative, into neutral, into the second level of creative thought…
This is good old regular thinking. Nothing magical, totally basic. This is the status quo. This is the stuff we take for granted. These are the hum drum, clocking-in and clocking-out routine thoughts.
At least on this level, the thoughts are neutral, they are not harming you. They are keeping you mired in mediocrity sure. But at least you are not tortured.
Most people have the same thoughts everyday. Everything is a routine. One long rerun. A rut. But we are cool with them because we are invested in them, we are used to them. You know you are here if all you are doing is mimicking other people. There is very little if any original thought.
You might make stuff, but you will not create anything remarkable or interesting at this stage. You have to graduate to level 3 if you want to start making waves.
The third level of creative thought is you actually applying yourself. Your thoughts are focused on something definite, at least until something else comes along. It is all fine and well to be attentively focused, but you are not yet fully committed.
This is probably the level most people push at work. You are focused enough to get the job done. but your efforts get punctuated by social media, distraction, or a new shiny toy.
You will have some success, some results. But it would just be okay. If you want more, if you want any hope of breaking through to the next level, you need to get even more immersed. You must ascend to level 4…
At this level of creative thought, you are so laser focused that you can’t be distracted by anything else. You are completely invested. You are transfixed to one point. In this mode, things get done.
This is the flow state. You have bought into what you are doing, and it has started to possess you. This is where you push so hard and so long, you forget to eat. You turn down invitations to other activities. You shut Netflix off and put your phone on airplane mode. You are here, pushing until the work gets done, whatever it takes
This is where you begin to really get successful. You stay in this mode consistenty enough and the results start to stack up. You excel.
But to crack the ceiling, to break through to the space where the elite operate. You have to go even further, you have to go deeper into level 5…
On this level, the entire world around you serves as fodder, as material.
You are possessed by your craft. You live, eat, dream and breathe it. You see it everywhere and in everything. All the pieces around you serve to nurture and deepen the work. You never shut off. Even when you are not working, your mind is still racing, still solving problems.
You watch a movie, but beyond the plot and entertainment value, you are breaking it down, analysing it, taking lessons and ideas to apply to your own thing. You go into a store and beyond getting a new pair of shoes you are mentally undressing the establishment, assessing their customer service, modes of operations, pricing strategies.
This isn’t a level for everyone. This is for the champions, for the crazy ones.. This is where you make real tradeoffs to get what you want. The truly excellent, true genius is only created and touched in this space.
Stay in this long enough and you will transcend into the final stage…
Here, there is no more thinking, just pure being. This is the deepest level of immersion and connection. In this state, you become one with the medium, with the instrument. You connect and create at the speed of impulse. Here, you simply let it flow. Here, you are living with grace.
This is where you are so within, like Neo, you see the code in the matrix. This is where truly genius insight resides. This is where life altering breakthroughs happen.
And there you have it, the 6 levels of creative thought. I think you can chunk them up to 3 stages with two levels each. The first two – overthinking and layman’s thinking are the lower, unenlightened level. The next two – attentive and concentrated thinking is the stage of trials. You have to put in the work and build your focus and commitment to the craft. And finally the last two – the stage of enlightenment. This is where you truly start to excel and win.
With this, we can begin to check in with ourselves from time to time, to ask what level we are operating on, and how effective we are being in our various creative pursuits. Pushing ourselves to higher levels of creative thought, to higher levels of output.
The other day, I came across this interview with Pharrell Williams & Steve Stoute, and among the many gems they dropped during their talk, there was one that stood out for me. It is an idea that I have heard before but this was a great reminder.
At about the 35:40 mark, Pharrell starts speaking directly to the camera addressing artists in particular, saying that when you find yourself in a crappy contract situation, don’t stop making music, don’t try to hold things back. This was his reasoning:
The Universe is a Library. All we are doing is checking ideas out. We can pretend, we can be possessive, it was here before us, it will be here after us. We are just checking ideas out. And what you might have checked out on one day, might not be what you will check out on the next day. So do not not make the music. When you got a library card that works, you use that card everyday!
Many creative professionals and productivity gurus make the argument for routine, and practice. They know that unlike what most people may think, that true creative productivity doesn’t come from being held bound to whims of inspiration, but from the simple unglamorous truth of just doing the work.
Not that they discount inspiration. If you have ever felt the thrill of being caught up in the moment, then you understand that it is a special kind of intoxicating and immersive. It is the pure state of flow and excitement.
The problem is that the Muse is fickle. Today might be full of inspired ideas, and tomorrow might be completely dry. The question now becomes how to generate or access the inspired state often.
Most people would want to just hang back and wait for it to come for us. Wait for lightning to strike. So we only create when we feel like it, when it is convenient.
But true creatives understand that you must keep a routine, keep writing, keep creating, keep making. Do it on a schedule. Regularly have your nose at the grindstone. These ones understand that you can whet the ground for lightning. You can work your way into inspiration. Or at the very least sharpen the saw for when it is time to strike.
In the War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes:
This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers dont. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight. When we sit down and do the work, we become like magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.
This is the case for creating constantly. No two days are exactly the same. The things that emerge, the ideas, and the products vary from day to day. And you never really know which one is going to take off, which one is going to stand out, which one is going to change your life.
The work is yours, the results belong to God
There is the idea that the work is yours, and the results belong to God. The one thing we do have control over is showing up. Stepping up to the plate. Showing up to the party. Being present. The privilege to do the work, the blessing of creation. And when we do that, when we engage, we are transformed in the process.
What comes out, what we get blessed with – the insight, the connection, the resonance. That belongs to the higher power, that belongs to the whim of the universe. You don’t know what is going to come out for sure, you just have to trust. And the more opportunities we allow ourselves to grasp, to create, the more gifts we stand to receive. The greater the chance that we stumble across something truly life and game changing.
More benefits of creating constantly
- It gives us the chance to practice and deepen our abilities. Every time we work and create we keep our skills alive and active. We are able to improve our technique.
- It helps us to stay warm. In steady creation, we remain immersed in our field, listening to the chords, playing with the ideas, making prototypes. We are warm, we are active, so when the breakthrough comes, we are poised to take full advantage of it. You don’t have to get ready, if you stay ready.
- We make more happy accidents. Many of the world’s breakthrough moments happen by accident. You try to create something and then stumble into something else. Like the creation of penicillin or the sticky note.
Developing a creative practice, staying ready, turning pro and being consistent increases our chances for success and real breakthroughs. It keeps us growing and evolving. It takes our work and our experience to new and exciting places.
In the tech world, there is the concept of the stack. This is the combination of technologies a company or entity uses to build and operate an application or project. It is all the different pieces that come together to give the final solution.
It is also a concept that has expanded to use in adjacent fields to refer to the idea of a collection of tools or resources to yield a result. For instance, the full stack creative might refer to a person who is able to conceptualise, write, design and code. They employ a wide range of tools to take a project from start to finish.
What does that have to do with you
Life is crazy. Our world is perpetually in motion, from the rotation and revolution of this rock of ours, to the ever grinding gears of industry, we are always moving. Things are always changing. shifting. Technology continues to change and upend our lives with new realities and new possibilities, and new challenges. What worked yesterday, will falter tomorrow.
How do we stay resilient? How do we remain robust? How do we thrive?
By building a stack – your collection of skills, your portfolio of resources, your body of work.
In a world of perpetual change, it is better to grow a body of work than to stay in one strict lane if you want to remain in the game.
The successful are always building stacks
If you look at creatives, entrepreneurs and the like, you will noticed that they are never really just about one thing. Sure, there is a need for focus and specialising and conquering a domain, but eventually, successful people expand into a web, or cluster of related hustles or projects. You can’t just be one dimensional.
The biggest musicians don’t just record music, they perform, go on tour, make appearances, branch out into branded businesses, investments, etc. The biggest churches don’t just get people in the pews, they broadcast on tv, they sell books, and albums, and so on. Your favourite YouTuber probably doesn’t just make videos, they also do brand deals, they stream, they sell merch, they do Patreon.
We all need a portfolio of tools, a cluster of strategies all working together to move us forward towards our chief goals. When they all function, they can support and reinforce each other. If some fail, the others can keep things afloat. You end up building an ecosystem, with things growing, evolving and dying but working together and balancing things out.
Build a stack for anything and everything
You can apply this concept to different areas of life.
Many of us probably have just one or two sources of income – a skill we peddle, or a job, or a business. But that keeps us very fragile. If something happens to that one skill or avenue, we are fucked.
To combat this, you’ve got to build a stack. Find ways to open up more avenues, to offer more things, to give more value outside of your core expertise. This applies to things like skills, it also applies to areas like finances and business.
Let’s talk about skills. It is great to have a core skill, for instance I have the core skill of design, it is the thing I have practiced the longest. But over time I have had to evolve and add more things to that list. And I continue to work to add more.
Having only one viable skill is a fragile situation to be in. Not to mention boring. If something happened to my hands, or my workstation, or if AI suddenly became smart enough and cheap enough to replace designers, then I’m toast.
But I have built different skills – brand strategising, web development, writing, speaking, facilitating, these allow me to do more, to offer more value and be better even at the original core skill.
Let the pieces connect to each other
Even better if these skills feed to or relate to each other. It is a natural progression from designing a brand, to building a website for it. Or creating a brand strategy, or helping them to write or create their content. If one thing dries up, maybe the other picks up. I have months where I’m mostly building sites, and months where I’m doing more designs, etc.
In business, it pays to build a portfolio of strategies, of creating products and services or solutions that complement each other. In this way, you can meet different segments at different points and provide a richer solution over all. Maybe you go from just servicing clients and executing designs to building an audience online, and creating digital products and tools for them.
Maybe you start creating workshops and meet-ups, maybe you do online courses. The point is you are building and weaving multiple threads that weave together into a brilliant tapestry, your stack.
So make your stack cohesive. Let it leverage your strengths. Craft the pieces to be complementary and be able to feed each other. And make sure it is all designed and organised towards a chief aim.
More reasons to build your stack
- It keeps you growing and evolving
- If you do it right, you can create things that can live on and bring returns for a long time
- It makes you antifragile and able to stand when the inevitable hits happen
- It increases serendipity, making it easier for amazing things to happen to you
- It offer variety and a richness to life
How do you reclaim your inner fire when everything around you feels so bleh? When you feel creatively uninspired. How do you spark the flames of passion and get excited about what you do, about life again?
It is the question a lot of creatives, and people in general have to ask from time to time. Things are great when you are gripped in the firm pull of inspiration. When the words seem to pour out of you, and the ideas can’t stop flowing. It is all you can do, just to keep up with the flow.
But sometimes, the flow stops, the well runs dry. And for a while there is nothing there, and if it goes on long enough, you start to wonder if it would ever come back.
There are many reasons you can get here. You could end up here because you are just exhausted. You have been working, creating at a furious clip, putting stuff out there, and eventually it wears you down.
Or life happens, and there is a break in the routine, in the cycle that nourishes your creative space.
When you find yourself in that place, in the desert, how do you find the oasis? How do you find nourishment again, how do you reclaim your inner fire?
I don’t know. But I have some ideas. I have been in this space for the past few months to a year, feeling bored and uninspired. Sitting down to write, dipping down into the well, and coming up empty. Wrestling with this idea of how to reclaim passion. And coming to a place where I feel somewhat inspired or at least equipped with the tools to push forward, I have some theories on what to do.
So let’s examine some reasons the inner fire goes out.
This is self explanatory. It’s hard to create when you are tired. Especially if you have been working for a long extended period. We are creatures of cycles. We need to work, we also need to rest. If we are not taking the time to pull back and take care of ourselves, of letting the soils of ideas replenish. We will find ourselves empty and hollow and unable to be our best.
I have blogged at length about the need to rest, to create empty space. In our society and every connected lives, we are pressured to always be productive, always be plugged in. But oversubscription to that idea will only ensure that we burn out. And when we burn out, we must take the time to pull back, to heal.
Being creative can be very much tied to our neuroses and issues. As wonderful as the act and art of making things is, we are also plagued with our insecurities, our fears. And if we don’t do the work to address and push through those issues, they will eventually rise up to sabotage us.
I for one, cringe at almost everything I do. It is hard to fully embrace and promote my work or content, and that is something I am working on. Because if you cringe long enough, soon, you just stop making stuff.
One of those big issues that plague us on the inside is self-doubt and anxiety. We don’t think we are good enough, or we have what it takes. We second guess ourselves and overthink everything. We want everything to be perfect on the first try and don’t give ourselves the space to start by doing it badly. Or we worry about being able to execute the way we want to. We are not relaxed or confident enough to let ourselves be free in the learning and creation process.
But that is a big part of the creative process, getting into flow, letting go of the ego and being fully immersed in what you do. The more we work to a healthy inner space, the easier it is to give your best performance.
Not putting in the work
To remain creatively productive, you have to put in the work. You have to turn pro and stay pro as Steven Pressfield says in his book The War of Art.
No matter how fit you are, if you stopped working out for weeks or months, you will definitely feel and see the difference. If you stop working you stop getting results. It is important to take breaks and rest, to even lay fallow. But you must eventually get back to work, get back to routine, get back to a dedicated space and time for playing, experimenting, and creating.
That is why routine is so important to the life of the creative, or anyone trying to do or make anything. The routine gives you the framework, the conditions to sit down and get things done.
Doing the same work
If you are doing the same thing over and over again, you will probably eventually get bored. Unless you are taking deliberate action and practicing to become better, to go deeper in your craft, to explore the nuances of it.
Sometimes, we need to explore new things, new avenues of creativity. Pick up a new hobby, learn a new skill. It could be something completely different, or it could be something tangentially aligned to what you do already. Exposing yourself to new stimuli and situations will spark new thoughts and ideas in your mind, rekindling that flame and passion.
I love being alone. I often remark to myself, that I feel like my best self when I’m by myself. But we also need people, we need social interaction. If you spend all your time listening to yourself, you are only getting one point of view. In addition to all the benefits we get from connecting with others as social creatures, we also get exposure, to new ideas, points of views, collaboration and opportunities. No one of us is a completely self-sufficient island, we need each other and we need to work together.
That is also why people often recommend that you travel or go somewhere new when you are feeling uninspired. The break in routine, the new experiences and connections help to shake things up.
These are just some reasons why you might be feeling creatively uninspired. And as I write this, many more pop into mind. So maybe there’s a part 2 of this post to be written.
But knowing is half the battle. And whenever we find ourselves in the slump, we have the tools to peel the layers back, find out why and begin to claw our way out, to find our way back to passion, back to inspiration.